“53” is the magic number that NFL teams must whittle their offseason 90-man list down to before the start of the regular season. Every year a player who seemingly has no shot of making the cut comes out of nowhere and wins a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers final 53-man roster. We’ve seen it happen in recent years with players such as Roosevelt Nix and Tyler Matakevich.
And we’re likely to see it happen again this season.
The Steelers have a rock solid roster with very few holes, but there are some dark horses who aren’t being talked about and could end up making the Steelers final 53.
Here are a few of those early candidates to make the cut.
When the Steelers spend money in free agency, they don’t often make a big splash with a high-profile signing. Regardless, the team has a tendency to retain those free agents signed early in the offseason.
However, this trend could be bucked with wide receiver Justin Hunter.
Hunter is made in the mold of a wide receiver the Steelers covet. They love players with the combination of his speed and size. But like the other players on the roster who fit that mold: Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hunter is an inconsistent player with unreliable hands. It’s hard to picture Hunter making the 53-man roster with the abundance of talent the Steelers have at the position.
Yet the Steelers signed him for a reason. They must see some potential in Hunter. He could be insurance for any of the players listed above, primarily Coates and Heyward-Bey. These two players were used primarily for special teams in the latter half of the 2016 season, and that is where Hunter will have to shine if he hopes to make the 53.
While not a major amount of money in terms of the salary cap, cutting Heyward-Bey would save the Steelers about $1 million in cap space. If Hunter can prove to have a team-first mentality, be a solid contributor on special teams, and show the potential that got him drafted in the second-round years ago, there could be a spot for him on the 53-man roster.
Seventh round picks are almost always flyers. They are boom-or-bust players who, more often than not, don’t have long NFL careers (if they make a roster at all). Outside linebacker Keion Adams is different than the normal seventh round flyer. He isn’t like Gerod Holliman years ago who lacked the physicality or mindset for football.
What made Adams fall is his apparent lack of size, but as we’ve seen before, size can be overcome. Adams fits well as a 3-4 outside linebacker and has the athleticism to develop into a solid player. While he seems like the perfect type of player to sit on the practice squad for a year to develop, I wouldn’t count him out on making the 53-man roster.
The roster spot Adams will likely be fighting for is the one belonging to veteran linebacker Arthur Moats. Moats has been a great Steeler during his tenure in Pittsburgh, possessing a perfect team-first mindset and being a solid contributor. But given the Steelers depth at the position and his capped upside he appears expendable.
With the Steelers looking to sign some big contracts over the next year or two, the roughly $2 million in cap money that could be saved from cutting Moats could be appealing. Moats is also entering the final year of his contract. Moats’ role could be replaced by Anthony Chickillo, who overtook Moats’ starting job last season.
Chickillo could also be expendable, as he too enters the final year of his contract. While Moats was a spot starter in place of the injured Bud Dupree in early 2016, Chickillo was mostly a special teams player who saw a small portion of the outside linebacker snaps. When Dupree returned, that rotation disappeared entirely.
Either of those players could be moved out or could stay if another position is trimmed to make room for the rookie from Western Michigan. Adams wouldn’t be expected to play on defense in 2017, but if he flashes his athletic potential and impresses on special teams, the Steelers could decide to give him a roster spot.
The tight end position is one where the Steelers don’t have an abundance of depth. They did not address the position at all in the draft.
While Ladarius Green, Jesse James, and David Johnson all appear to be roster locks, the player on the hot seat is Xavier Grimble. This leaves the door open for undrafted free agent Scott Orndoff to fight for a roster spot. Grimble has flashed talent, but he’s never proved to be a consistent player. He’s a journeyman tight end who’s played for four different teams before arriving in Pittsburgh.
Grimble has been labeled as an athlete, but when comparing his testing numbers to Orndoff they’re fairly similar. Orndoff was brought in for a pre-draft visit by the Steelers, proving they had an interest in him prior to the draft. At Pitt, he was primarily used as a blocker but had some success as a receiver. He only caught 35 passes his senior season, but averaged 16.5 yards per reception and finished with five touchdowns.
The Steelers have always liked physical tight ends with size and the ability to block. Orndoff fits this bill to a “T”. Being a better blocker than Grimble and a similar, if not better athlete, Orndoff’s upside could land him a spot on the 53-man roster.